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Book Review: The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

Tom Wilmeth on the Godfather of Soul as jazz artist

James Brown

When James Brown died on Christmas Day 2006, record companies rushed to do their usual thing-each of his former labels repackaged the music they owned by the artist and issued it with a new cover. One of the more unexpected collections was called James Brown Jazz. This title brought back unpleasant memories of Jimi Hendrix’s troubled posthumous recording legacy, and how his former producer tried to champion Hendrix as a frustrated jazz guitarist on releases like Nine to the Universe. Or, even less likely, those who said that the Allman Brothers Band would have become jazzers had guitarist Duane not died.

I bought James Brown Jazz but didn’t play it much until recently, when I encountered Brown’s new biography The One (Gotham Books). In it, R.J. Smith shows the diverse elements that made up James Brown: R&B, funk, gospel and grit; hard-driving grooves and heartbreaking ballads. These, and more, were all a part of Brown’s bag. Regardless of form, at no time was his sound indistinctive. Whether hearing “King Heroin” or a Christmas hymn, you immediately knew this was James Brown working the room. He was incapable of aural anonymity.

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